Orthodox America


 Against the Tide – New Martyr Archpriest Mitrofan Bychkov 


    The life printed below is condensed from a 30-page manuscript written some 50 years ago by a close follower of Fr. Mitrofan. It is supplemented by the reminiscences of his spiritual son. now Archimandrite Mitrofan of San Francisco, who married Fr. Mitrofan's eldest daughter.


 

      Fr. Mitrofan Bychkov was born between 1870-80 in Voronezh where, two centuries earlier, there had labored one of Russia's most beloved saints whose name he bore. Upon graduating from seminary he married the daughter of a Voronezh merchant and was soon ordained deacon. His talent as a musician--he was an accomplished violinist--won him an offer of a well-salaried position as choir ma star in St. Petersburg, but his heart called him to the priesthood.

    The parish to which Fr. Mitrofan was first assigned was neither better nor worse than most served by those who regarded their priesthood as a profession. But the young and energetic new priest chafed at the established routine, and he zealously undertook a proper '.'house cleaning", brushing aside cobwebs both literal and figurative. His dedication won him the hearts of the parishioners but raised eyebrows among the older clergy. Later Fr. Mitrofan regretted that in his youthful inexperience he had perhaps been tactless and offended his superiors. But their entrenched attitude was lifeless and stifling. Not to lose entirely his idealism, Fr. Mitrofan began to visit Optina where he received moral and spiritual support from Elders Joseph and Anatole. They too must have seen that under the circumstances a split was inevitable, and they blessed Fr. Mitrofan to begin construction of a new church where he would be free to till the soil after his own manner.

    A large meadow in the middle of a nearby village was chosen as a site for the new church which was to be dedicated to the icon of the Mother of God, "Joy of All Who Sorrow.'' While waiting for official permission to begin work, Fr. Mitrofan would often go there and pray. Many people joined him. ,Such a project naturally met with disapproval among the "routiners." "Lord," prayed Fr. Mitrofan, "is this pleasing to Thee?" Like a New Testament Gideon, he boldly appealed for a sign from above. Turning to the Heavenly Queen, he prayed: "If the building of this church is pleasing to Thee, O Mistress, send rain!" The hot sun was beating down upon the parched earth which sent up clouds of fine dust from beneath the feet of those who made their way together with Fr. Mitrofan to the chosen site. When they arrived they began singing a molieben in honor of the Icon "Unexpected Joy." And suddenly, out of nowhere--a cloud! and such a downpour. The faithful continued their singing. Holding the wet service book, Fr. Mitrofan with trembling turned once again to the Theotokos: "lf the building of the church is pleasing to Thee, stop the rain." They returned under the bright rays of the sun, their clothes dry and their spirits uplifted.

    Finally, permission was granted by the local ecclesiastic authorities, and Fr. Mitrofan himself began to dig the foundation. Once he had won over the support of the local people, work progressed rapidly according to a design which he himself had worked out. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented its completion.

     More and more people began coming to Fr. Mitrofan for advice--and not only concerning spiritual matters, but also various aspects of daily life. This aroused envy among the other clergy whose parishioners preferred to go to Fr. Mitrofan's church. Unable to tolerate such a disruption in the "normal order," they petitioned the Bishop to reassign Fr. Mitrofan to another district. Not wishing to lose the entire older group of priests, the Bishop asked Fr. Mitrofan to leave Kalach and move clear across the diocese to the small town of Krasnaya Dolina.

It was only many years later that Fr. Mitrofan was able to recall with gratitude the Bishop's directive and to see in it God's All-wise Providence. Through experience he came to realize that at that time he lacked the necessary spiritual maturity to hand le the situation there in Kalach. There is a popular saying that every fruit has its season. But then! Fr. Mitrofan had quite a different reaction: "Bishop Anastassy took a rusty knife, thrust it into my heart--and left it there." In leaving Kalach he had to abandon that to which he had devoted so much labor, so much love.

 

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy the sheaves of everlasting life. (Ps. 125:5)

 

Compared to Kalach, Krasnaya Dolina was a poor, insignificant little village. What was worse, in the revolutionary turbulence of 1905 it had gained a reputation for its socialist sympathies. While one could not speak of it as godless--traditions linking the people with the Church were still strong--a feeling of apathy towards religion had become, so to say, the fashion. The welcome extended to the new priest was disinterested at best; among the wealthier or more learned members of the community it was outright scornful.

    The church there in Krasnaya Dolina reflected the impoverished spiritual state of the village inhabitants. Small, dark and cold, it was attended only on big feasts and for baptisms, weddings and funerals. Fr. Mitrofan served alone, without choir, without reader. But he did not use the empty church as an excuse and continued, as was his custom, to serve the full cycle of services.

     But how difficult it was! How difficult! Without God's help it would have been impossible to endure. Reading the lives of saints, the lives of the ancient desert dwellers and of the righteous ascetics of more recent times, one sees that they all "sowed in tears," that every one of them endured trials and temptations by God's allowance, that they all passed through the furnace in which their spirits were tempered, purified by fire, in order that later they could reap fruits of spiritual joy.

      There in Krasnaya Dolina Fr. Mitrofan met with an added burden of financial difficulties. Conscious of the needs of his growing family (he had 12 children), he was many times tempted to ask for a transfer' to another parish. But he put his trust in God, ashamed even to think of his priesthood as a means of financial support.

    His first years in Krasnaya Dolina were years of grief and intense spiritual warfare. The parish was like a heavy weight pulling him down and Fr. Mitrofan had to fight to keep his spirit alive. Through God's mercy he met an eldress, Mitrofania, who helped nourish his soul and strengthen his spiritual powers. The eldress also consoled Fr. Mitrofan's wife who, as a mother and housekeeper, felt keenly their poverty, fielding the two strongest weapons, prayer and fasting, Fr. Mitrofan was able with God's mercy not only to survive, but to turn the tide. The people used to complain about the length of the services, but Fr. Mitrofan stood firm, faithful to his pastoral conscience. Refusing to succumb to discouragement, he continued calling the people to ascend to the kingdom on high. And if he began as one crying in the wilderness, his voice was eventually heard.

    Three years passed and new people came to Krasnaya Dolina. Untainted by local prejudices, the newcomers were quick to value Fr. Mitrofan and were even able to influence their neighbors. Hearts were softened and the church began to fill. A noticeable change came over the whole village as people began to respond to the spiritual challenge of Fr. Mitrofan's demands. Here he was alone; his uncompromising ways bothered no one. The neighboring priests only regarded him with amazement.

     Gradually a tight circle of followers gathered around him. Fr. Mitrofan discouraged visitors who came simply to pass the time, but he always welcomed those who came in search of "the one thing needful." A group began to meet regularly for spiritual discussion; Fr. Mitrofan would read from the Bible or from the Holy Fathers and give a commentary. Out of this group a community of sisters developed following a monastic pattern.

     In obedience to the Optina elders, Fr, Mitrofan also began at this time to serve weekly moliebens before the icon, "Unexpected Joy," and also to perform services of exorcism. Having been so recently infected by the spirit of "enlightenment", many people were convinced that demons were a superstition, It was enough, however, for one of these skeptics to attend a service of exorcism performed by Fr. Mitrofan to be persuaded of the terrifying reality of demons just as it is portrayed in the story of the Gadarenes.

     Once having awakened from sleep, the people of Krasnaya Dolina soon realized that theirs was not an ordinary village priest who simply fulfilled the traditional services and ceremonies. The years preceding the Revolution were a time of anxiety. In spite of the long services, the church was filled beyond capacity. people often came from long distances and staved on until evening. Tables and benches were arranged in the open air, and on a feast day, as many as 500 people were fed. Fr. Mitrofan used to say to his helpers, "Freely ye have received, freely give."

      For some time after the Revolution the authorities of the new regime were afraid to touch Fr. Mitrofan because of his immense popularity but this period of reprieve could not last forever. Atheist activism became more militant and Fr. Mitrofan was subjected to repeated interrogations and brief periods of arrest. Throughout the country Satan was sifting people as wheat.

      The years of unrest and civil war brought a famine which was acutely felt in the northwestern part of the Voronezh province where Krasnaya Dolina was located. Fr. Mitrofan's former parishioners in Kalach persuaded him to return together with his nuns. Once again he served in the church which he had built and continued to direct the intense spiritual activity of his community in spite of the adverse circumstances which were closing in on them all.

      It was during this time that the sisters chanced to witness an extraordinary manifestation of the prayer which ever burned in Fr. Mitrofan's heart. It was an early winter's morning, the church was still dark. Fr. Mitrofan was in the altar engrossed in the Proskomedia which always took him several hours. The sisters were on the cliros chanting Matins. From behind the iconostas came bursts of light. Afraid that something had caught fire, one of the sisters opened a side door into the altar and saw Fr. Mitrofan standing at the Table of Oblation where he ,was taking out particles for commemoration of the living and the dead. With each name that he pronounced, there shot out of his mouth a flame of such intense brightness as to illumine the entire altar area.

      After the worst of the famine was over, Fr. Mitrofan returned to Krasnaya Dolina together with the community of sisters. By this time anti-religious attacks had escalated and it was not long before the community was closed and the sisters dispersed to find shelter with relatives. Spiritual ties ,however, remained strong, They often visited Fr. Mitrofan and were obedient as before to his counsel.

      Between the beginning of the Revolution and 1924 Fr. Mitrofan was arrested at least a dozen times; sometimes his imprisonment lasted a week or two, but at other times it lasted several months. Finally the chairman of the village soviet told him that he would do better to leave Krasnaya Dolina, warning that if he did not, things might end very badly for him. He had no choice. Earlier Eldress Mitrofana had told Fr. Mitrofan that some day he would move to Voronezh and had given Monastery. It "so happened" that the house with the best view of the monastery was for sale just at that time--and for precisely the sum of money given by the Eldress.

     There in Voronezh a number of the sisters rejoined Fr. Mitrofan. Somehow, in the midst of crowded living conditions, they managed to preserve the daily cycle of services. Without the support of a parish their financial situation was precarious, but Fr. Mitrofan possessed strong faith and inspired others to trust the Lord's command: "Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink..." (Matt. 6:25).

      Fr. Mitrofan concentrated on his obedience to serve moliebens before the icon "Unexpected Joy." Having no parish of his own, he held these moliebens in the homes of his followers, frequently moving about so as not to attract the attention of the authorities. But this was almost impossible; these services drew as many as a hundred people. In spite of its being often crowded, stuffy and hot, everyone was caught by the uplifting spirit of prayer.

     Always neat in appearance, Fr. Mitrofan exhibited a marked strictness--not only with regards to his own fasting and prayer, but also in fulfilling the typicon. He never cut the services which were long although they never dragged, He served simply, unobtrusively, so as not to interfere with the spirit of prayer. Some people were afraid to go to him for confession because he was so demanding, but those who did were struck by his skillfulness in treating the soul's wounds; with his gift of clairvoyance his instructions always hit their mark.

      In Voronezh the circle of followers expanded and the study groups drew more and more people. Fr. Mitrofan's extensive library of spiritual books provided a wealth of material which he enriched still further with his profound commentaries. But while encouraging this kind of study, he stressed the importance of carrying the Bible around not in the pocket--hut in the heart.

     Fr. Mitrofan believed in a strict separation of Church and politics. He tried to isolate his community as much as possible from the grey, deadening Soviet reality and provided it with a world of its own, given over to seeking the Kingdom of God. But the Renovationist schism and the difficulties of the Church situation weighed heavily upon Fr. Mitrofan and together with his frequent arrests, they broke his health. In 1928 he developed heart trouble from which he never fully recovered.

    Churches were being closed one after another. Although Fr. Mitrofan had no parish, the authorities couldn't tolerate his widespread influence; his very existence was an obstacle to them when their aim was to scatter the sheep. In October, 1929, he was arrested by the GPU on charges of counter revolutionary agitation. They had an open trial but their evidence was so poorly fabricated that they failed in their attempt to discredit Fr, Mitrofan in front of the people. Nevertheless, they managed to sentence him to five years' exile in Eastern Sibera. His frail health could not endure the journey, and he died on March 22, 1930. A cross erected over his grave on the banks of the Angara began to attract the faithful and was for this reason removed by the authorities.

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